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Colombia, United States Entertain False Hopes of Melting Away Twin Guerrilla-Drug Wars
No Easy Out
by Herbert Tico Braun | June 12, 2002
For the first time in history, Colombians have elected a president who campaigned on a promise to defeat the guerrillas. On Sunday, May 26, hard-liner Álvaro Uribe Vélez decisively won the election with a 53% majority, thereby making a second round run-off unnecessary.
In the previous, 1998 presidential election, Colombians voted for Andrés Pastrana, who promised a negotiated settlement with the guerrillas. Pastrana’s peace efforts failed and he leaves office as one of the most unpopular presidents ever. For those Colombians who went to the polls recently, only a military solution remained politically credible.
Although it looks like Colombian voters have done an about-face, their underlying desire is the same: They desperately want the guerrillas to simply melt away. Indeed, most Colombians have held to this outlook consistently during the past half-century.
Colombia is afflicted with the hemisphere’s longest-running civil war. Back in 1956, when the conflict was just beginning, Time magazine described how the illusive, poncho-clad guerrillas "melted away" at dusk in a "silent war." Time ‘s correspondent wrote that the war’s "causes are rooted deep in Colombian history." But, he noted, for many Colombians it appeared a "strange, confused, nearly meaningless war."
The guerrillas long have claimed to be fighting on behalf of Colombia’s politically and economically disadvantaged peasantry. For Colombians of all social classes, however, the war’s purpose remains strange and confused; whatever meaning it once might have had is obscured today.
The character of the war, meanwhile, has undergone some changes. Illegal drugs and U.S. military aid are expanding it beyond its local dimensions.
Insurgents of the left and paramilitaries of the right now are clad sharply in clean, military uniforms. They have more guns and ammunition than they know what to do with, as well as web pages and email addresses. They have grown wealthy from kidnappings for ransom, extortion, and cocaine trafficking.
The United States is deeply involved on the side of the Colombian army and, by extension, the paramilitaries. Colombia receives more aid from the United States than any nation other than Israel and Egypt.
Just as Pastrana made a negotiated peace seem easy, so now Uribe is portraying military victory as equally possible. He conveys the vague aura of strong leadership and asserts that a collective will is all that is necessary. He has offered few specifics on how he will defeat the guerrillas.
He plans to double the size of combat forces to 100,000 and to increase the police to 200,000. But who is going to be recruited into this expanded army? Most high-school graduates are not required to serve in the military, and those who do, get desk jobs in urban areas. Middle- and upper-class Colombians who voted for a wider war certainly don’t expect that their children will fight it.
Instead, Uribe has proposed a cheap and dangerous solution: Create a network of a million civilian "informants" to serve as eyes and ears for the military and police in work places and neighborhoods. This is a sure path to widespread vigilantism.
And where is the money going to come from for this new war effort? Only a skimpy 3.7% of GDP, as little as $3.1 billion, is spent yearly on the military. The economy is limping along at a 2% annual growth rate, and in his campaign, Uribe made no mention of increased taxes. The Bush administration, however, is stepping up to the plate, offering additional millions in military equipment and training. Should the American people be asked to help pay for this war when the Colombia’s middle- and upper-classes have never done so?
In reality, Colombians have voted for a war without a clear end game. This kind of escapism might appear odd and irrational, but it parallels the thinking behind Washington’s main war in Colombia: the war on drugs. Many well-meaning U.S. constituents support this supply-side drug war that targets Colombia and other drug producing countries with increasingly militarized eradication and interdiction campaigns. Many know that this policy does not work and that more illegal drugs enter the United States today than when the drug war first began, but it seems easier than fighting the demand side: drug consumption at home. For Americans the U.S. public, this drug war in the Andes is largely a war without sacrifices.
Guerrillas in Colombia and drugs in the United States are not simply going to melt away because politicians pledge that they will defeat them. If Uribe’s administration is as superficial as his political campaign, his presidency will be a failure. Rather than opting for facile solutions, both Colombian and U.S. citizens need to examine and address the root causes behind these twin wars.
Herbert Tico Braun is a Colombian citizen and Latin American history professor at the University of Virginia. He is the author of Our Guerrillas, Our Sidewalks , a memoir of the kidnapping of his U.S. brother-in-law by guerrillas in Colombia in 1988.
Published by the Americas
Program at the Interhemispheric Resource Center (IRC). ©2002. All
Herbert Tico Braun, "No Easy Out," Americas Program Commentary (Silver City, NM: Interhemispheric Resource Center, June 12, 2002).